August 9, 2016, 7:56 am
While the top spot in the Western Conference seems to be fully controlled by the Golden State Warriors, the following spots seem to be relatively wide open. While the Clippers, Spurs, and Thunder have been among top teams in the conference, the landscape looks to be potentially shifting in the near future, possibly even as soon as next season.
That also may not be the case. The Clippers still have plenty of talent, the Thunder are young and still have Russell Westbrook to try to build around, and the Spurs haven’t been bad nearly two decades. So the idea of these teams remaining at or near the top of the standings in the next season isn’t unrealistic.
While I’m always afraid to bet against Russell Westbrook, the loss of Kevin Durant will likely end the Thunder’s chances to get the second spot, but anything is possible, and I still expect them to be a very competitive team. With that said, I see three obvious favorites to land the second spot:
3. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs were incredible last season. They were the second best regular-season team in the NBA in a year where the best team won 73 games. LaMarcus Aldridge got more comfortable as the season went on, and Kawhi Leonard continued to show that he is one the best players in the NBA.
Going forward, San Antonio could see Leonard and Aldridge get even more comfortable together and become one of the most dominant duos in the league. Pau Gasol should help facilitate the offense and soften the blow of losing Tim Duncan, and bench players like Kyle Anderson and Patty Mills have been able to carve out useful roles for the team.
The biggest reason for optimism is likely Danny Green. His field goal percentage and three point percentage were both far lower than they had ever been during his five years under Gregg Popovich. He’s still just 29 years old, and his defense was stellar last season, so it isn’t probably isn’t related to age or injury.
His three point shooting was clearly an issue last season, and the fact that it was his only issue would lead you to believe that it could be a mechanical and therefore correctable during the off-season. He still shot 44.8% on two-point attempts, which is not too far from his career average, and both his assist percentage and turnover percentage were right around his normal level. His usage was down, but that could be due to his shooting struggles and the fact that much of the offense went through Leonard and Aldridge last season.
I would expect him to be at least average offensively next season, which would be a huge boost for their team.
There will be struggles for this team next season. They will need to find a way to anchor their defense without Tim Duncan. The opposing team’s O-Rating jumped by about 4 points when Duncan wasn’t on the court last season, and Pau Gasol will not be able to fill that gap on his own. He should be a very good replacement for Duncan in many respects, and many advanced metrics point to Gasol being a valuable defensive player last season. Opposing teams had an O-rating that was 1.3 points higher when Gasol was sitting, and his Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 3 is very high, but he won’t be the defensive presence that Duncan was.
Beyond that, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will be another year older, and while the Spurs likely have enough young talent for this team to go through a relatively painless transition towards a new core, this could till provide a bump in the road big enough to keep them out of the top two in an incredibly competitive conference.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan have shown for the last few years that together they can form one of the core’s in the league. All three are still young enough to play at a high level, and both J.J. Redick and Austin Rivers took steps forward last season. If they’re healthy, this group has everything they would need to give any team trouble next season.
That seems to be a bigger question than it’s ever been. Even though Griffin returned last season, he had to end his season early with a quad injury, and that will be a big concern going forward. This team has very little depth beyond their main pieces, so injuries will be a bigger blow for them than most. Chris Paul injured his hand during the playoffs, and while that injury is far less concerning, he’s already 31 years old, and his usage of 27.1% last season was by far the highest it’s ever been in Los Angeles.
Jordan has been fairly healthy during his career, but he showed during the end of the team’s playoff series with Portland that he cannot get the job done on his own(it was actually hard to watch at times). The Clippers can survive injuries and remain near the top of the conference, but to be the second team next year they will have to stay healthy, and will likely want to address their depth issues as soon as possible.
1. Utah Jazz
I know that this seems overly optimistic, but the Jazz have so much going for them.
The Point Guard position was a huge black hole for the team last season. Trey Burke and Raul Neto both had a Box Plus Minus of -2 or less, and while Shelvin Mack was a huge upgrade for them, his BPM was -0.3 with the Jazz last season.
George Hill will be a huge upgrade on both ends of the floor. It’s hard to understate how much better he will be than any option they had last season, and for an offense that ranked 16th last season without a true starting point guard, he will be a huge boost. His ability to run an offense and space the floor will be much appreciated.
Beyond that, the Jazz were hit pretty hard with injuries last season. Gobert and Favors missed 41 games combined, and Dante Exum missed the entire season. This is unfortunately what likely caused the team to miss the playoffs last season. Having all of their players healthy should make their top 10 defense even stronger.
The Jazz also have amazing depth at every position. They have at least one player that can start at every position, and have at least one high quality backup for every starter. Their bench should rank among the best in the league, and they should also be able to weather injuries better than most teams.
Quin Snyder has shown that he is one of the best young coaches in the league, and considering how young Utah’s core is, they still have a ton of room to grow. Adding veterans like Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw should help guide this team toward a very successful season. Don’t be surprised if the Jazz are one of the more dominant teams in the league next year.